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Can Microsoft Teams Be Used for Townhall Meetings?

Moving townhall meetings online can present a range of virtual problems – not least, which web conferencing tool to use! This note explores how Microsoft Teams can be used by governmental bodies to remotely host their townhalls and other public engagements. This note is relevant, therefore, for those organizations that already hold, or are considering holding, a Microsoft 365 license: given you are already paying for Teams, optimize your return on investment by exploring how far Teams can support your public engagements.

Townhalls are intended to be widely accessible to enhance democratic engagement. An immediate limitation to consider with Teams, then, is whether you have the right license to enable its audio-conferencing feature. For as broad a reach as possible for online townhalls, ensuring citizens can dial-in to the meeting (if their internet connection is poor or non-existent) is important. Audio conferencing and phone system enablement will be available as part of A5/E5/G5 licenses, but only available as an add-on for others.

There are two main options available for hosting townhalls through Teams: meetings and live events. Depending on anticipated turnout, level of user engagement needed, and other requirements (such as ability to livestream), the best option will come down to context.

Source: SoftwareReviews Microsoft Teams Scorecard. Accessed: May 22, 2020

Overview of differences between Teams meetings and live events

Teams meetings

Teams live events

Can external and guest users join the event?

Yes

Yes

Can attendees other than the organizer/presenter speak?

Yes

No

Can attendees other than the organizer/presenter be seen?

Yes

No

Can attendees be muted?

Yes (but attendees can unmute themselves)

Muted by default and cannot be unmuted

Can attendees’ video be turned off?

No

Attendees cannot share their video

Can attendees dial-in?

Yes (with correct Microsoft 365 license or audio-conferencing add-on)

Yes (with correct Microsoft 365 license or audio-conferencing add-on)

Can the event be recorded?

Yes (manually)

Yes (automatically)

Can the event be livestreamed?

No

Yes

Teams meetings are designed for fluid interaction of up to 250 attendees. There are three types of participants within a Teams meeting: organizer, presenter, and attendee. The organizer and chosen presenter(s) will have access to certain meeting privileges and can set permissions for what attendees can do within the meeting. For instance, organizers and presenters can prevent attendees muting other attendees, kicking other attendees out, admitting attendees from the lobby, and from having recording privileges.

In a Teams meeting, each attendee has access to the microphone, can share their video, and participate in the chat function. As such, Teams meetings are usually selected for a townhall event if the organizer anticipates very few attendees but wants the attendees to be seen and heard through Teams’ audio/video conferencing during a Q&A session. Attendees can dial-in to participate and both external and guest users with a valid email address can join. It is possible (and recommended) to set up a lobby to filter attendees as they try to join the event.

Ensuring online townhalls are compliant with public records regulations is important. As such, please note that Teams meetings are not automatically recorded (the organizer or presenter(s) will need to manually click “record”) and cannot be livestreamed. The recorded meeting can be found in Microsoft Stream and can be uploaded for those attendees that could not join live.

Of course, it can get a bit unruly if up to 250 participants are in one meeting. Despite the level of permissions organizers and presenters have, there is still a large element of trust with attendees’ behavior. If the presenter wishes to exercise some control over the event by muting audio, attendees can simply unmute themselves. Moreover, presenters and organizers cannot block attendees’ video. To allow for order and a smooth session, it is advised that organizers do the following:

  • Share an agenda before the meeting.
  • Ask attendees to send in their questions prior to the meeting.
  • Enforce a lobby and set up a separate registration.
  • Clearly define who can present in the meeting (note: participants outside of the Office 365 tenant being used for the Teams meeting cannot be selected as a presenter).
  • Ensure each new event has a unique meeting code and conference ID.
  • Use the chat function for attendees to put their name forward to ask a question (or insert a question for the presenter to respond to).
  • Have a zero tolerance for malicious participants, who should be promptly kicked out of the meeting. Have someone whose main job it is to monitor this aspect.
  • If you are sharing a screen, ensure only the presenter(s) have control over this function.

If a Teams meeting might be infeasible, consider hosting a Teams live event instead. Live events are best used for broadcasting information to large audiences of up to 10,000 attendees. These events are hosted as one-to-many or few-to-many. As such, audience participation is limited to a text-based Q&A function or polling. While attendees cannot be seen nor heard, this does drastically reduce the possibility for disruption. Moreover, all live events are automatically recorded and can be livestreamed.

Consequently, while meetings and live events make up for each other’s potential downfalls for hosting a townhall, both will not perfectly meet all requirements. To decide which of these options to run with, governmental bodies ought to think about the key requirements needed for their townhalls and perhaps bite the bullet for whatever opportunity cost is chosen.

Of course, Teams is not the only option available for hosting townhalls. While leveraging and optimizing one’s in-house collaboration toolset is the best first option, searching for other solutions may be justified if significant gaps in meeting end user requirements persist. Teams might be “good enough” but this will not be a suitable bar in all circumstances.

To explore other web conferencing options, see SoftwareReviews’ Web Conferencing Data Quadrant.

Source: SoftwareReviews Web Conferencing Data Quadrant. Accessed: May 22, 2020


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